The Holy Trinity
“Ja, vi elsker dette landet…” Norwegians worldwide, and Norwegian-Americans among them, were singing those words a week ago on Syttende Mai, May 17th. Those words are the opening words of the Norwegian national anthem. “Ja, vi elsker dette landet…” “Yes, we love this land…”
160+ years ago it was not so much the land of mountains and fjords across the sea that Norwegian immigrants had in mind. It was their new homeland to which they had sailed lock, stock and barrel. Although they were Norwegian to the core, this was now their home. “Ja, vi elsker dette landet…” “This land.”
So much did they love this land that when the call to arms was heard to preserve the Union these Viking descendants from across the sea volunteered in droves. Svens and Oles and Larses and Knuts by the score. It sounds like the beginning of an Ole & Lena joke, but the Wisconsin regiment had so many Ole Olesons volunteering that they had to assign them numbers. You can read it at the Veterans’ Museum down in Madison. Ole Oleson #1, Ole Oleson #2, Ole Oleson #3, Ole Oleson #4. “Ja, vi elsker dette landet…” And they did! And they died….by the score. Ole Oleson #1, Ole Oleson #2, #3, #4. All the Oles and Svens and Larses and Knuts, they died for this land, their new homeland they loved. And this weekend we remember them and the thousands of others before and after who likewise died in service to the land they loved. This land.
It is fitting, then, that we celebrate the Holy Trinity on this weekend as well, because the old strong words like “duty,” “honor,” and “country” are words which, like the Christian faith, are taking it on the chin these days. Even among us Christians. For some Christians, they look down their pious noses at anything which smacks of patriotism. For others, wanting to keep their theology pure, they separate the two kingdoms, Church and State, so far apart that the Church becomes a kind of Gnostic world, devoid of anything earthly, of anything that smacks of flesh and blood; too spiritual for patriotism. They all forget that being Christian is never without also being a citizen of a nation. For us, this nation. And being Christian does not render citizenship meaningless. Far from it. To paraphrase the old line, we could not love this nation so much, loved we not Christ more.
This present era, when both Church and State suffer so many indignities, it does not speak well of a God who goes to so much trouble to make Himself known! Whatever happened to God?
For one thing, He has been explained to death! Many Trinity Sunday sermons are nothing more than attempted explanations about God. Even the venerable and lengthy Athanasian Creed tiptoes close to being more an explanation about God than a confession of faith in God. But we observe Trinity Sunday and confess this ancient Trinitarian Creed so that God can speak to us! A preacher on Trinity Sunday is not in his pulpit to explain the mystery of God. He is there to proclaim God to his hearers!
The late, eminent Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde, once recounted a conversation he had with a seminary student. This seminarian had had the unusual opportunity for some extended conversations with a rather famous Hollywood actor and director. Turned out, the seminarian said, that this actor was a rather astute theologian. Yet one day he said to the student, “You know, I would like to believe, but I don’t have the gift of faith.”
Forde recalled, “‘Aha!’ I said, ‘and what did you say?’ [The seminarian] reported honestly, ‘I didn’t know what to say. He knew as much theology as I did. What was I supposed to say?’” Forde goes on, “After thinking about it I responded, ‘Well, suppose you could have said something like this: “Is this for real?… You would like to believe but you don’t have the gift of faith? Well, hang on to your socks because I am about to give it to you!” And then you put your hand on his head and say, “I declare unto you the gracious forgiveness of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. There! Now I gave it to you! And if you ever wonder about it or forget about it come back and I’ll do it again. Or, come to church. We do it there every Sunday. I’ll wash you in it.”’ ‘But oh,’ the student said, ‘that would take a lot of guts.’ To which I replied, ‘Of course, but in the Church we call it Spirit! Why not, after all, take some chances, give it your best shot? Perhaps the man doesn’t need more explanations. He needs someone to speak God to him.’”
So on Trinity Sunday particularly, a preacher does not merely wax eloquent about the love of God the Father. After all, what does it matter if God loves the world, if you, singular, do not hear that God loves you, singular? So hang on to your socks, from God’s mouth to your ear, He says, “I have placed My name on you in your Baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You, singular,” He says, “are now My beloved.” There! I gave it to you. And if you ever wonder about it or forget about it come back and I’ll do it again. We do it here every Sunday.
On Trinity Sunday particularly a preacher does not merely wax eloquent about all that Jesus the Son did to personify the love of the Father. Yes, it’s true that Jesus honors the Father by His death on the cross and by His resurrection from the dead. Yes, it’s true that Jesus is Lord and God. But what good is it if He is not your Lord and God. And no, I do not mean that first you have to accept Him as Lord and God. What good is that? No, I mean that you need to hear that He, the Lord and God, has accepted you. Which Peter does in his own sermon, “…the promise is for you and your children.” “For you!” he says. There! I’ve given it to you again! And if you ever wonder about it or forget about it, come back! We do it here every Sunday!
On Trinity Sunday particularly, a preacher does not merely wax eloquent about the Holy Spirit rushing around in the atmosphere. Yes, it’s true that like the wind, the Spirit blows where He wishes. Yes, it’s true that it’s the Spirit who gives life, that being born of the Spirit means rivers of living water flow from a person’s heart. It’s all true.
But what good is it if the Spirit does not flow from within your heart? So a preacher points to where you were born of water and the Spirit. A preacher speaks the words of God into your ear: “It is the Spirit who gives life” “…the words that I speak are spirit and life”…for you, singular! There! I’ve given it to you again!
Now, of course, this does not mean there is never a time or a place to wrestle with the mysteries of God—His nature, His work, His hiddenness—planting His footsteps in the sea and riding upon the storm. But…in these times which so sorely try our souls, in these times when we are so confused about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be an American, and especially what it means to be a Christian American, an American Christian…it is not talk about God that will save anyone. Nor will any amount of blazing zeal on our part save anyone. No Christian jihads. No dumbing down the faith for an easy-peasy wonderland of Christian escapism. If anyone is to be saved, God must do it.
But whatever happened to God? In His divine being, in His glory, He is hidden from us. In His majesty He can do nothing for us. So the majestic God comes to us in Jesus, makes Himself known by His words spoken to us, by His gifts given to us. He says, “I love you.” “I forgive you.” “I baptize you.” Whatever happened to God? Jesus is what happened to God. The immortal, invisible God located in the flesh and blood of Jesus for us, located in the tangible gifts of words and water and bread and wine for us.
And by that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by those gifts, we are a new creation. We are creatures of heaven, now, even while we remain creatures of earth. It’s like all those Ole Olesons who had become a new person, an American. The same goes for the others—the Germans, the Poles, the Irish, the Italians, and all the others who came to these shores. They could not love their native culture so much, loved they not this new country all the more.
So we citizens of two kingdoms, of the Church and of these United States, we are given the very work of God to do…the often quiet, tedious, slow work, requiring patience and endurance. God gives us His work…to speak, to act, to proclaim, to live…in His holy name. Not as Christian over here and American over here. But one new person, both citizenships being taken up into the mystery of the Three in One God. That in Him we may believe with our hearts, in Him we may confess with our lives, all that this God has done for us!